Where sewing machines have names: a peek inside SOU’s costume shop

ABOUT THIS SERIES: This story is part of a series in collaboration with the Ashland Daily Tidings spotlighting the work, research and experiments taking place in laboratories on the Southern Oregon University campus. During the year, these invention centers and their specialized equipment are only accessible to university students, faculty and staff. But on May 15, dozens of departmental labs and art studios will be open to the public during the fifth annual Southern Oregon Arts and Research open house. For more information about SOAR activities, performances and presentations, call 541-552-6816 or visit www.sou.edu/soar.

Minutes before the curtain closes, the actors are delivering their last lines, theater ushers are preparing to direct the audience through the exit doors and members of Southern Oregon University’s costume design team are discreetly moving from the backstage into a row of seats.

Here, they can take in the beautiful set and costumes, and let out the stress of dodging, yet again, all of the worst-case scenarios they conjured in their minds that could have happened, but didn’t.

After the applause, the costume designer, assistants, stitchers and drapers will be in a position to hear people praise the way the actors were able to bring the characters to life and the historically accurate costumes that set the scene. No one will mention them, though.

“If you’re being noticed, you’re doing something incredible or you screwed up really bad,” said SOU junior Sarah Martin. “Usually it’s because you screwed up.”

Morganna Spake, a theater senior, works on a wedding dress for Midsummer Nights Dream on Wednesday. Photo by Troy Goossen/The Siskiyou

The students who work in the theater department’s costume shop deserve praise for their contribution, said SOU theater professor Deborah Rosenberg, who earned a masters in fine arts in costume design from the North Carolina School of the Arts and teaches costume design, costume construction, stage makeup, costume history and script analysis at SOU.

“We’re pretty good at what we do,” she said. “We have extraordinary students and they do beautiful design work.”

Every year, the theater department puts on five to six shows, offering students opportunities to create costume sketches and put the pedal to the metal on the sewing machine.

“We teach real skills and then let them practice it,” Rosenberg said.

At the end of each school year, theater students petition for various positions in the next year’s productions. Theater professors then evaluate the strengths of the potential costume designer. What type of experience does this person have? Who would benefit from which type of project?

The costume design process can take months. It entails weeks of researching, sketching, revising, drawing and gaining approval. The lights in the costume shop illuminate the room long after the campus has grown dark.

Finally comes the actual costume construction. The whirring of sewing machines is accompanied by voices shouting, “is anyone using Henrietta?” as 15 people try to get work done on six machines with nicknames.

The last stage of the process is the dress rehearsal and alterations.

“Dress week is its own animal,” Martin said. “It’s hectic and scary. Sometimes you have to find a new dress. You have to put your ego aside. You always know it could happen, but you never want it to.” According to Martin, costumes can build the character.

“Costumes took over my life in the best way possible,” Martin said. “We do it because we love it. You can’t do it unless you love it.”

With all of the research, preparation and sleepless nights, there is no arguing that SOU costume design is a labor of love.

“I wake up excited to go to class everyday,” Martin said. “It’s the most you could ask for.”

Samantha Edgerton, a theater freshman, and Morganna Spake, a theater junior, work on the wedding dresses for Midsummer Nights Dream on Wednesday. Photo by Troy Goossen/The Siskiyou.

Martin explained that she accidentally stumbled into costume design. But classmate Hanna Wisner, a costume designer for the recent SOU show, “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead,” has spent almost a lifetime preparing for this.

Wisner said she has been drawing and playing dress-up since she can remember, and helping actors find the perfect costume since first-grade school plays.

Wisner is designing for “Elixir of Love,” an Italian melodrama for the Rogue Valley Opera, which will be staged at the Medford’s Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater and the Grants Pass Performing Arts Center in May.

Her sketches will look different than the costumes on stage. She said she sees sketches as a visual contract to the director of what she is promising to present on stage. Designs change to accommodate the actors’ comfort and safety, lights or the director.

But change, from the sketch to the final costume seen on stage, is an accepted part of the creative process. “I love seeing the differences myself,” Wisner said.

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